Peter Callas: Life on Fire

Video courtesy of Peter Callas

A Conversation with the Artist

Peter Callas is a pioneering figure in the field of ceramics and built the first Anagama in North America in 1976. He has since become America’s preeminent authority on the Japanese wood-firing technique. An internationally acclaimed ceramist, he combines this ancient firing technique with the wabi-sabi aesthetic of imperfection and abstraction, resulting in energetic, dramatic works that pulse with life and appear to have been born straight from the fires of the earth.

An Anagama, in Japanese “cave kiln,” is a type of kiln that was brought to Japan from China via Korea in the 5th century AD, consisting of a single-chamber kiln built in a sloping tunnel shape with a firebox at one end and flue at the other. In an Anagama there is no physical barrier between the stoking space and the pottery space, allowing flame and ash to interact with the surface of the clay and, in contrast to electric or gas-fueled kilns, they are fueled solely by a continuous supply of firewood. The length of a firing depends on the size of the kiln and can vary anywhere from two to twelve days and the fire must be fed and stoked around the clock. The final appearance of pots depends on many factors including both the reached and sustained temperatures, the amount of ash, and the wetness of the walls and the pots themselves. It takes a vast amount of knowledge and skill to utilize the Anagama’s effects on pottery to their fullest potential: Peter Callas is one such master.

We sat down with Callas to discuss his life, work, and connection with the late, great Peter Voulkos.

Can you describe your artistic background, what drew you to ceramics, and why you decided to make it your life’s work?

My career in art began in college when I took a ceramics course in Nebraska. After transferring to The University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, WA in my sophomore year I became an art major and graduated in 1973. As an artist in resident at The Archie Bray Foundation I fell in love with the material and the process and decided to make it my life’s work. 

Callas working on a charger. Image courtesy of the artist.

Do you come from a creative background? How did your family and the place that you come from shape you?

My parents were very inspirational to my interest in the arts. My stepfather was a Hot Jazz aficionado, so music was always in the background. Both my parents shared a passion for collecting fine art, especially French antiques, so growing up there was a treasure trove of art in our home.

How would you define the style of your work and its development? 

From the time I spent in the Pacific Northwest I grew to love nature’s rugged beauty. The Pacific Rim exposed me to Asian ceramics, especially Japanese ceramics, which help mold my style of abstract art in the wabi-sabi style.

Callas with some of his creations. Image courtesy of the artist.

The Anagama kiln, used to fire my work, serves as a tool for the intangible quality of spirit and conjure in simple, rustic form the material transformations associated with time and the natural forces that return all things to their origins in the earth.

Peter Callas

Peter Callas

Peter Callas is a pioneering figure in the field of ceramics and built the first anagama in North America in 1976, introducing an entirely new way of approaching the art form to American ceramic artists.

Born in 1951 and raised on the West Coast, Callas grew up in an intellectually and creatively rich environment. At eighteen years old he moved to Southern California where he reveled in the counterculture musical and artistic scenes bursting to life on the west coast. In 1970, he began attending Hiram Scott College in Nebraska and enrolled in his first ceramics course; Callas immediately felt connected to the medium, its tactility and challenging nature. Hiram Scott College soon filed for bankruptcy, so Callas enrolled at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. By January 1971 he was back in school, using the rugged terrain of the Pacific Northwest as inspiration and learning about history, archaeology, and Asian ceramics.

After graduation, Callas was accepted for a residency at the Archie Bray Foundation in Montana, where he worked in the same studio with Peter Voulkos and began experimenting with wood ash glazes. Following his residency, at the age of 23, he impulsively traveled to Japan, a trip that would unexpectedly change the course of his future. For two months he traveled thousands of miles, visiting museums, meeting potters (among them the great Shoji Hamada), and touring centuries-old wood-fired kilns. Of particular importance was his visit to Rakusai Takahashi’s studio in Shigaraki, where he assisted in building a traditional Anagama, or wood-fired kiln. Callas was enamored by both the process and the results–the interactions between fire, ash, and glaze and the multitude of craggy, textured, dramatic and imperfect surfaces and earthy colors. He returned to the United States with the dream of making art his life and having his own Anagama.

By the fall of 1975, through hard work, sheer grit, and determination, Callas had built the first Anagama on American soil. Located in Piermont, NY, he fired his first group of pots in the fall of 1976. Just two years later, Callas reconnected with Voulkos at the artist’s retrospective show in New York City and brashly told him “I can fire anything you make and make it look better.” Thus began one of the most important ceramic collaborations of the 20th century and a partnership that would last over two decades, changing the path of both men’s careers. Voulkos’ work from that point forward would be almost entirely wood-fired and the two artists collaborated frequently through the late 1990s.

Callas moved to Belvidere, NJ in the late 1980s and built his second Anagama, where he continues making ceramics to the present day. With over five decades of experience, he is considered to be one of the foremost experts on wood-fired ceramics and has mentored dozens of artists. He is the recipient of grants from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation and the Windgate Foundation and has exhibited across the globe including at the Mashiko Museum of Ceramic Art (Japan), the Powerhouse Museum (Australia), and the Daum Museum of Contemporary Art.

Callas’ work has also recently been honored with a retrospective exhibition, Peter Callas: An Enduring Legacy, at The American Museum of Ceramic Art, Pomona, and can be found in many important permanent collections worldwide such as the Shangyu Modern Ceramic Art Museum, Shaoxing City, China, the Museum of Modern Art, Sao Paolo, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Shigaraki Cultural Park, Shigaraki, Japan, the Yale Museum of Art, New Haven, The National Museum of Contemporary Art, South Korea, and the Cleveland Art Museum.

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